New Direction at the State
This is big news for the State. While directors besides Toner have staged the company's work -- most notably, company artists Joe York and Jill Parker-Jones, but also guest artists such as Peter Sheridan -- the hand at the artistic helm for the past 12 years has always been Toner's. It's Toner who has brought artists into the company "family," as he's fond of calling it, Toner who has consistently sought projects to showcase its key actors (Babs George, Steve Shearer, Steve Fromholz, Dirk Van Allen, Thomas C. Parker, Janelle Buchanan, and Boni Hester, among others), Toner who has directed the majority of its productions. And even when he has not staged shows himself, he has kept his hand in the creative mix, casting here, building sets there. To call his artistic leadership style hands-on is putting it mildly. For 12 years, he has made himself a part of almost every creative decision made by his company.
That's not to say that every creative decision made at Live Oak/the State during Toner's stay has reflected an identifiable artistic vision. On the contrary, for much of that time discerning a real artistic course in the company has been difficult. While it has established certain types of plays that it stages regularly -- the most obvious being Texas plays and traditional American dramas -- the State has not done so with the sense of artistic purpose that one typically finds in regional theatres of its longevity and status. It's been a little bit of everything, in such a way that the company's artistic identity is hazy. The strongest sense of character I've drawn from the company's work under Toner has been a concern with family. Many of what are for me the company's most memorable productions -- e.g., All the Way Home, The Immigrant, Calvin's Garden, Beast on the Moon -- have centered on family, as have a goodly number of the shows I've found less than memorable. Given that and Toner's vision of company as family, I've found it curious that he never did more to capitalize on family as an artistic basis for his company. But now that opportunity appears to be past, and the hand that has always been there in 12 years' worth of creative decisions won't be.
That in itself will make things very different.
This is certainly an apt time for the State to chart a new artistic course, what with the renovation of the former moviehouse space into a venue for live performance and the opening of a second theatre -- a first for the company -- in the adjacent Reynolds-Penland Building. New facilities offer new potential. Here's to seeing that potential realized.